It's no secret that Creative Labs is the trendsetter in the "audio for PC" field. Not so long ago the company announced a new generation sound card aka Audigy2, which brought about a real storm in the Web community. A lot of hardware sites touted the innovations Creative had in store for the happy buyer of its Audigy2. Most of the reviews agree in their tune: the authors praise the Audigy2, hang a lot of compliments onto it, but quite forget to mention its drawbacks.
Actually, Creative should make up for the wrongs it has been doing to users: the company didn't solve the problem of backward compatibility of the previous generation chipsets, gave up supporting digital output through its "exclusive" mini-DIN connector (for old loudspeaker systems, such as FPS2000) and didn't develop unified drivers. The users had to download huge driver and complementary software updates. It was a real hell if you had dial-up connection. Interesting that at the beginning of 2002 Creative approached paper magazines to put the driver updates onto their CDs. All this could do nothing but angry the user who had already counted out a round sum for the sacred sound card.
Anyway, the public love to the sound cards from Creative was beyond all these problems, while the main competitors (like Philips or Turtle Beach) couldn't catch up with Creative, which was providing its sound cards also for the value PC market. Today the user who isn't satisfied with the integrated sound wants to get an Audigy or, at least, Live!.
Audigy2 main features look as follows:
- Audio playback in up to 24bit/192kHz mode;
- Audio playback and recording in 24bit/96kHz mode;
- DVD-Audio format support;
- Dolby Digital EX decoding;
- Sound output onto 6.1 speaker systems in movies and games;
- Seven analog outputs;
- THX certificate (the Audigy2 is the first audio card to have it);
- New sound up-mixing algorithms CMSS 3D;
- Improved signal/noise ratio (SNR) - 106dB.
The innovations look revolutionary enough, something that we had expected from the first Audigy. But I would call Audigy2 just another evolutionary development stage in this sound card family. Anyway, let's leave aside all suppositions and take a closer look at what Creative is offering us.
Audigy2 Platinum package includes:
- Sound Blaster Audigy2 sound card;
- Audigy2 Drive communication module;
- Infrared remote control panel;
- Joystick/MIDI bracket;
- SB1394 cable;
- AD_EXT cable;
- Digital audio cable for the CD-ROM;
- Power supply split cable;
- Two Mini-DIN / Standard-DIN MIDI-cables;
- 6.3/3.5mm adapter (jack / mini-jack);
- User's manual;
- CDs with demos and games.
Minimal system requirements:
- Intel Pentium II 350MHz or AMD K6 450MHz CPUs or better;
- A mainboard based on Intel's or AMD's chipset;
- 64MB RAM for Windows 98/Me;
- 128MB RAM for Windows 2000/XP;
- 600MB free HDD space;
- A free 5 1/4 inch bay for the Audigy2 Drive communication module;
- Headphones or amplified speakers;
- CD-ROM (DVD-ROM recommended).
On the hardware level, the card resembles the first Audigy. We have the same dark-brown PCB and gold-plated connectors for better electrical contact. Both cards have about the same dimensions (the Audigy2 is just a little larger than its predecessor). The key parameters also remained almost the same.
The Audigy2 features a renovated CA0102-IAT digital signal processor (DSP). The manufacturer doesn't tell its processing power. But considering that the E-MU10K1 provided 1000 MIPS (million instructions per second) and the first Audigy was four times more powerful, the processing power of the Audigy2 must be about equal to that of its predecessor. Is it much or little? For a better comparison: the Aureal AU8830 had 600 MIPS of processing power. The Cirrus Logic CS4630-CM processor that is used in Sonic Fury cards is 420 MIPS. We guess there was no need to invent a new processor for the new sound card, as the old one had a huge reserve left. Moreover, we didn't see hardware Dolby Digital and DTS audio streams processing. The Audigy2 can't process Dolby Digital streams in real time, as, for example, NVIDIA SoundStorm, but it can correctly output pre-encoded Dolby Digital 5.1/6.1 content. So, we have to admit that SoundStorm audio processor from NVIDIA outran Audigy2 in this respect, but maybe we will see some new things in the Audigy3? Maybe…
Creative brought nothing new into the analogous part: the Audigy2 still uses the SigmaTEL STAC9721 AC'97 codec. The company keeps loyalty to this codec since sound cards of the Live! family.
The Cirrus Logic CS4382 (192kHz / 24bit) chip serves as a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) in the Audigy2. This eight-channel codec is equipped with a per-channel volume control system, includes analogous and interpolation filters for each of the eight channels. The advantages of such architecture: no distortion-producing mechanics, low jitter and so on. This codec is an ideal solution for multi-channel audio systems, including DVD and SACD players, A/V receivers and effect processors. So, no wonder that Creative chose the CS4382 to be used as a DAC in Audigy2 (Creative was also expected to use a codec from SigmaTEL, especially considering the long-time partnership between the two companies). The Audigy2 Drive communication module, which we will discuss below, also carries this DAC.
Products from Creative feature an additional communication unit since the Live! sound card. Today it is a required part of Platinum and Platinum eX packages. During its evolution, the unit acquired an infrared receiver and an SB1394 (FireWire) port.
The Audigy2 Drive is intended to ease the user's life simplifying the routine connection of various devices to various ports. Moreover, some of those connectors just can't be laid out on the narrow brackets of daughter-cards. The exterior of the Audigy2 Drive remained the same, except the label, while its electronics did change quite tangibly.
So far, Creative released two Audigy2 modifications. The Audigy2 Platinum eX package with an external unit will hit the market in 2003.
The communication unit of the Platinum package is installed into a free 5-inch bay of the PC (in Platinum eX this module is external). It connects to the sound card with a special band cable and an adaptor cable for FireWire. Besides that, the Audigy2 Drive receives additional power, necessary for optical sensors, IR-receiver and other radio-electronic units of the module.
The front panel of the unit carries optical and digital RCA connectors.
The module allows using coaxial and optical SPDIF in- and outputs to connect any external Dolby Digital decoder to the audio card. Thus, you can enjoy listening to sound in some "tricky" digital format, like DTS-ES, which is not yet supported by the Audigy2.
The front panel of the communication unit carries full-size sockets (6.3mm) for headphones (professional ones required) and a microphone. Each socket has a dedicated volume control knob. If you happen to use mini-jack headphones, you will find the necessary 6.3/3.5 adapter in the box. To the right of these sockets there are mini-MIDI sockets (the adapters are also included with the audio card) and SB1394 (aka FireWire). To the left, there are two separate RCA inputs for analogous audio monitors. To cut it short, every musician will find all he/she needs in the Audigy2 Drive.
The unit is also equipped an IR-receiver hidden behind a dark glass. It receives commands from the external remote control panel. The remote control was inherited from the first Audigy. Of course, with a remote control unit and the communication module the sound card became super functional. It's a real pleasure to sit in your favorite easy chair and enjoy your favorite music: all the necessary operations can be done with the remote control (and the software, of course). The PC can even be shut down without coming up to it.
While DVD-movies are widely spread now and little by little force out video tapes, DVD-music is not that popular. At least, we only saw demo samples of such DVDs. Anyway, let's check the advantages of this upcoming format. First of all, it's the huge capacity of a DVD disk (up to 17GB against the 650MB in an ordinary CD) that allows storing 25 times more audio data on one DVD disk than on a CD. But the capacity is not all. A DVD-Audio disk can give out six-channel sound (while we get only two with a CD) in a much higher sample rate. Creative decided to support this (not very popular yet) format in the Audigy2 by developing the necessary software. The software suite that comes with the new card includes MediaSource DVD Audio Player that is automatically initialized when you put an appropriate disk into the DVD-drive.
So, if you have a DVD-ROM and an Audigy2 sound card, you can experience the best sound quality of DVD Audio. Creative included a DVD-disk with a few demo tracks for us to feel the difference.
What are our impressions? Well, it's rather hard to describe the unquestioned advantages of DVD Audio in a few lines of the review. And you can compare DVD and CD only when listening to both simultaneously. We can only say that the sample left an impression of very natural, live music. We hope that after the DVD-Audio standard became supported by Audigy2 sound card, the recording companies will take note of it and get to producing albums of popular groups and singers in this format.
As for the DVD Audio player itself, it won't work in Windows 98. It's intended for Windows 2000/XP solely. However, there were problems with the player in Windows XP, too. From time to time it caused the system to freeze. After reading the FAQ, we learned that the Player does hang up the computer with the installed Audigy2 if the South Bridge of the chipset is VIA VT82C686B. Well, this was our case. Creative recommends updating VIA 4-in-1 drivers and BIOS, but this didn't solve the problem. A curious hardware conflict. Those people who own mainboards based on this chipset should be aware of the problems when buying the Audigy2!
Dolby Digital EX 6.1 Surround
The Audigy2 sound card is equipped with an integrated Dolby Digital EX decoder that allows enjoying movies, which soundtracks imply the use of an additional rear central channel. This channel is necessary for smooth audio perception of the rear sound panorama. For example, a fly is flying from right to left without leaving an impression that it's not real. To cut it short, the extended Dolby Digital format is required for better realism. The seven sound sources guarantee a smooth panoramic sound picture around the listener.
As we have mentioned above, the Audigy2 is unable to encode Dolby Digital in real time yet, and can only perform some preliminary processing (pre-encoding) of this digital content. In order to please yourself with this multi-channel format, you will need an additional hardware decoder that will distribute the streams among the speakers. Audigy2 supports Dolby Digital EX 6.1, which is enabled by default. The decoder properties can be found in the corresponding AudioHQ page.
But of course, even if you have got the Audigy2, a seven-channel speaker system and the additional decoder, you won't be able to enjoy the format without the disks. To tell the truth, we haven't seen movies in the extended digital sound format yet, besides some sample DVD-disks. It's even worse with DVD-Audio: there must be a fraction of percent of such disks available.
We bet you haven't heard of THX and have no idea what hides behind this word. What is it? To cut a long a story short, THX is a quality certificate for devices that playback DVD audio formats. The certificate has the following life story. George Lucas, being much of an esthete, didn't enjoy his own movies during weekend tours into cinema with his wife. The cause of his outrage was nasty sound quality. The man noticed that his movies sounded differently in every given cinema house, and the quality of this sounding fell far behind the high professional audio standards. Lucas didn't fire his sound director. No, he just composed some rules monitoring the sound quality in cinema houses. All this happened in the far-away 1980, and three years later the THX Company was founded. Lucas named it after his first feature film "THX 1138". THX developed a special sound quality control system and used it into two acoustically "correct" cinema houses for the first night of "Return of the Jedi" movie. Then the company opened the requirements. Of course, a lot of cinema houses wanted to be "correct" from the THX point of view and tried their best for George Lucas not to spit with popcorn when watching movies. So, today there are over 2000 cinemas already that comply with the THX requirements. Moving with the times, the company presented the THX Multimedia standard in 2001 (Lucas must have bought a PC with a DVD-ROM). This is the certification the Audigy2 has successfully passed. By the way, the Audigy2 is a pioneer among sound cards in this field. On the whole, this certificate may be viewed as an award or acknowledgement. Two speaker systems from Creative also underwent THX certification. They are MegaWorks THX 5.1 550 and Cambridge SoundWorks THX 5.1 550.
Creative MediaSource Software
As always, Creative includes a lot of software into the card's package. The paper Installation Kit envelope contains eight CDs and an installation poster. This will be a real gift for every Audigy2 Platinum buyer. Well, here is what you will find in the envelope if you get yourself a card:
- Audigy2 Installation and Application CD
- Feature Showcase Demonstration CD
- Creative DVD-Audio Sampler Disc
- Traktor DJ
- Ulead VideoStudio
- Soldier of Fortune II (two CDs)
The first installation disk contains drivers and Creative's own MediaSource software. The second CD is a demo one showing the user what his new sound card is capable of. The next one is a DVD disk in the DVD-Audio format with a lot of full-length soundtracks. The names Traktor DJ and Ulead VideoStudio speak for themselves, while the two 3D action games will please any fan of the genre. Especially, since they feature Advanced HD audio surround effects.
Well, it's time now to discuss the company's software. We should admit that the company's designers and software developers did a great job. The interface of familiar programs has completely changed. Windows overloaded with graphics have sunk into oblivion now. All the software utilities look solid, we would say, they look corporate, following the general Windows XP style.
After the installation has been complete, a quick launch panel appears in the upper part of the screen.
If you press the Go! button, the MediaSource main panel will appear. It has all the programs sorted out by category.
First of all, we ran a diagnostics program, although we heard the usual greeting melody on Windows start-up. Besides the ordinary channels testing program, Creative offered the option for calibrating the speaker system. The program walks you through seven steps of adjusting the sound basing upon your own impressions and perception.
After that, a table appears with all the user's adjustments. By the way, the calibration program can identify improperly connected phases and advises to correct it accordingly, if necessary.
The mixer program has become more informative. In the Basic tab, the user can adjust the volume of various audio sources, choose a recording channel and adjust trebles and basses to his taste.
The Advanced tab contains sliders to set subwoofer and central channel volume levels. Moreover, if the loudspeakers are placed asymmetrically, you can make up for the volume misbalance with the help of an interactive yellow fader-ball.
A separate Speaker Selection tab allows changing the type of the acoustic system (if you have set it wrong during installation, have bought another one or want to use the headphones).
Subwoofer configuration options are stored in the Bass Management tab, where you can set crossover frequency and adjust subwoofer volume (this may help those who have low-cost speakers with poorly implemented low frequencies).